TOPEKA, Kan. (AP) - The Kansas Court of Appeals is taking the rare step of having all of its judges hear a legal challenge to the state’s first-in-the-nation ban on a common second-trimester abortion procedure to help speed up the court’s review.
Both supporters and critics of the law said Wednesday the court is signaling that it views the case as important and wants it to go quickly to the Kansas Supreme Court to settle whether the state can enforce its ban. Abortion opponents describe the prohibited method as dismembering a fetus.
The Court of Appeals scheduled oral arguments from attorneys for Dec. 9. Spokeswoman Lisa Taylor said judicial branch officials believe it will be the first time since August 1989 that all judges will participate in such a hearing, rather than the normal three-judge panel.
The law was supposed to take effect in July, but a Shawnee County judge blocked it while a lawsuit against it proceeds, saying the statute would limit women’s access to abortion too much. The judge also said the Kansas Constitution protects abortion rights at least as much as the U.S. constitution - a first-ever finding that, if upheld, could jeopardize other restrictions.
Attorney General Derek Schmidt’s office appealed. He said in an emailed statement that he respects the Court of Appeals’ “swift and full consideration” of a case with “significant constitutional gravity.”
“It should be expedited,” added Kathy Ostrowski, legislative director for the anti-abortion group Kansans for Life. “It impacts many, many laws.”
Both sides had asked the Supreme Court to take the case from the Court of Appeals, but the high court refused in September in a 4-3 decision, without explanation.
When a Court of Appeals panel rules, the losing party can ask the full, 14-member Court of Appeals to review the decision before turning to the seven-member state Supreme Court. The Court of Appeals issued a notice earlier this month saying all of its judges would participate in the abortion case, without saying why.
“What it signifies to me is that the court recognizes that this is an important question of first impression,” said Janet Crepps, a senior attorney for the New York-based Center for Reproductive Rights. “It’s an important constitutional question but also a question of major public interest.”
The center is representing the abortion providers who filed the lawsuit, father-daughter Drs. Herbert Hodes and Traci Nauser. They perform abortions at their health center in Overland Park, a Kansas City suburb.
The law prohibits doctors from using forceps, clamps, scissors or similar instruments on a live fetus to remove it from the womb in pieces, though the statute wouldn’t apply if doctors ensure that the fetus dies beforehand.
Such instruments are commonly used in dilation and evacuation procedures, which the Center for Reproductive Rights says are the safest and most common in the U.S. in the second trimester.
The Kansas law embodied model legislation from the National Right to Life Committee. A similar Oklahoma law, set to take effect in November, was blocked by a state-court judge last week.
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